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Friday, March 31, 2017

Review of THE MIDNIGHT SUN by Cecilia Ekbäck

4 Stars
I really liked Ekbäck’s first novel, Wolf Winter, so I was really interested in reading this second one, again set near the fictional Blackåsen Mountain in Swedish Lapland. 

Events are set in 1856 in the summer when the sun barely sets in northern Sweden.  Three settlers have been killed by a Lapp in the settlement near Blackåsen.  Magnus Stille, a geologist, is sent by his father-in-law, the Minister of Justice, to investigate the murders while mapping the iron-rich mountain.  Magnus is also instructed to take Lovisa, his sister-in-law, with him since her father has banished her from his home for some unacceptable behaviour.  The two of them make the arduous trip to remote Blackåsen where they find a mountain and a community reluctant to divulge its secrets.

There are three narrators:  Magnus, Lovisa, and Biija/Ester, an elderly Lapp woman who guides Magnus around the mountain.  A fourth narrator, a voice from the spirit world, appears about a third of the way through the novel; this voice utters three unsettling words in its first narration:  There you are” (96).

There is a claustrophobic atmosphere.  The village is remote and isolated and its inhabitants “’keep to themselves  . . . [and] don’t like strangers’” (74).  It’s obvious that there are secrets which they do not want to share.  Nearby is a tribe of the mysterious Lapps who are perceived as a threat by some people.  And then there’s the desolate landscape and the mountain itself which overlooks everything and is a constant, brooding presence. 

A mystery needs to be solved.  Did the Lapp in custody actually kill the three settlers?  He refuses to speak to defend himself.  If he is guilty, what was his motivation?   There are, however, other conflicts as well.  As the book blurb states, this is a story “of the collision of worlds old and new.”  The possible mining of the mountain is opposed by those who want it left alone, as it has been in the past.  The Lapps believe that humans, animals, and nature are connected and so have a deep respect for nature.   This view, the bedrock of their traditional faith, clashes with the advances of industrialization and Christianity, both of which focus on man dominating nature.    

Besides showing the destruction of native culture and the land, the book also touches on the patriarchal domination of women.  Lovisa is a woman who is very much a victim of male oppression.  She is expected to conform to society’s expectations; since she does not, she is sent into exile by her father.  She is even told by a friend of her father’s, “’I don’t know anything about you.  Nothing at all.  But I can imagine your life has not been easy. . . . Your father thought any human a blank slate that could be tailored to whatever he wanted it to be. . . . I wanted to say that it is likely that whatever has happened between you and your father is not your fault’” (234).  Lovisa thinks about Magnus:  “He’s a man.  He can choose what to do, when, and with whom, without suffering ill will and small-mindedness.  I can’t” (92).  Magnus eventually realizes, “If Lovisa had been encouraged, given responsibilities as a young girl, if she hadn’t been asked to conform, what would she have been like today” (166)?

Several examples are inserted of what happens to women who do not meet expectations:  a woman is placed in a madhouse by her husband (57); a radical female writer who questions rules is “unspoken to by the men, avoided by the women” (94); Lovisa’s mother is thought of as “a lesser being” by her husband (208); and a woman marries and breeds to escape from a domineering father (282).

The paternalistic attitude also extends to the Lapps.  Various people speak of them in derogatory terms:  “’Ignorant, yes.  Some say apathetic, without any drive to better themselves or create proper lives’” (17) and “’The Lapps are like children.  Nomads, you know, less evolved.  We are trying to help them, but they are unsteady’” (51) and “’their spirits are weak’” (78).  Marriage to a Lapp, Lovisa sees only as a punishment (266) or an act of desperation (282).  For me, one of the saddest observations is made by Biija.  Her husband Nila, the tribe’s shaman, recently died:  “Nila was our mapmaker, the keeper of our memories, of our legends, and he was the last one.  Never again will our people have a noiade.  Without him, we have no past” (175).

Characterization is excellent.  The three major narrators are fully developed characters with strengths and weaknesses, good qualities and flaws.  At times I was angered by the behaviour of both Magnus and Lovisa, and yet at other times, I could not but feel sympathy for them.  Magnus and Lovisa also grow and change; Magus finds his identity and Lovisa discovers a cause. 

The revelations are not a total surprise; by page 189, I guessed a major secret because of the foreshadowing.  Neither is the ending a surprise; in fact, the ending seems inevitable.  However, the ending will also give you reason to think and think again.

I found this a compelling read.  Some of the supernatural elements sometimes bothered me but they are totally appropriate to the time and place.  Whether set in relentless winter or relentless summer, Ekbäck’s novels do not disappoint.